Steven Spielberg thought of Poltergeist while working on Raiders of the Lost Ark. He had always wanted to make a ghost movie. He liked the scene in Close Encounters in which Barry was abducted by aliens, and so he combined it with research on poltergeists to make a movie in which a child is kidnapped by ghosts (Friedman and Notbohm, 87). When Poltergeist was first released, Frank Rosenfelt argued for a PG rating. Richard D. Heffner believed that it should receive an R rating due to the dead bodies and the intensity of the content. Spielberg responded, “I don’t make R movies” (Brode, The Films of Steven Spielberg, 113).
The movie has roots in Spielberg’s early childhood. He would lie in bed looking at a crack in the wall and imagine all sorts of creatures crawling in through the crack. Poltergeist is also a counterpart for E.T. Sanello says, “If the latter expressed all his hope for humanity, Poltergeist encompassed his primordial fears” (Sanello, 117). Brode says that E.T. reveals Spielberg’s “softer Disney side,” and Poltergeist reveals “his darker Hitchcock side” (Brode, 100.). Spielberg said,
E.T. is my personal resurrection, and Poltergeist is my personal nightmare. A lot of things in both movies really come from my growing up. Poltergeist is about my fears — of a clown doll, of a closet, of what was under my bed, of the tree in New Jersey that I felt moved whenever there was a wind storm and scared me with its long, twiggy fingers (Friedman and Notbohm, 113).
Steve Freeling is asleep in the den with the television on. It plays the Star Spangled Banner and then goes to static. While the dog, E Buzz, walks around the house looking for food, Carol Anne wakes up and walks downstairs to the TV. She speaks to unseen people while staring at the TV screen.
The next day Steve is at home watching a football game with friends. Meanwhile his wife Diane discovers that their canary Tweety is dead, and so she and her daughters, Carol Anne and Dana, bury him in the back yard. Her son Robbie notices that a storm approaching while he is climbing a twisted tree.
Before going to bed Robbie looks out his bedroom window at the tree he had been climbing and is worried about the approaching storm. After Diane puts Robbie and Carol Anne in bed and turns off the bedroom light Carol Anne insists that she turn on the closet light. When she and Steve are both in their bedroom, Diane speculates that Carol Anne was sleep walking. Steve is reading and watching A Guy Named Joe in which a World War II bomber pilot dies and is then given the task of passing his knowledge and experience to another pilot. Spielberg later remade this movie in Always.
Robbie and Carol Anne both end up sleeping with their parents. The television is still on but showing only static. Carol Anne gets out of bed and looks at the screen. A vaporous spirit floats out of the TV and then into the opposite wall. The house shakes, waking the family. Carol Anne says, “They’re here!”
The next morning a bulldozer that is clearing ground for a swimming pool unintentionally digs up the box containing Tweety, foreshadowing the end of the movie. The family then begins to notice strange things happening in the house, such as bent eating utensils and chairs moving on their own. Carol Anne also stares at a TV screen showing static.
Later that night another storm is approaching. Robbie grows concerned as he realizes that the storm is coming closer. The tree outside the window then reaches in, pulls him outside, and begins to swallow him. While the family runs out to save him, the bedroom closet door opens, and Carol Anne is pulled into another realm. While Steve looks for her in the hole dug for the swimming pool, Robbie hears her speaking through the television.
The Freelings then seek the assistance of paranormal investigators led by Dr. Lesh who suspects the disturbances may be caused by a poltergeist rather than an ordinary haunting. Lesh’s team sets up their equipment in the family’s house, and they manage to contact Carol Anne. When Carol Anne says she is afraid of the light, Lesh emphasizes that she must avoid the light, because it will not lead her back home. Carol Anne says someone is coming toward her. Diane feels Carol Anne move through her as she flees whoever is approaching, but no one sees Carol Anne.
Later that night Lesh’s assistants Ryan and Marty tell her that a channel which is not receiving a broadcast can receive signals from other sources, including “inner space.” Lesh tells Diane and Robby that in the afterlife people can enter a light where they will find people who have died before them and will also find all the answers to all of their questions. Those who do not enter the light, because they either resist it or get lost, end up wandering around. Lesh’s team manages to film some of these wandering spirits in the house. The next day, while walking by a cemetery, Steve tells his employer Mr. Teague that Carol Anne was born in his current house. Teague tells him that the cemetery was once located where his house now stands.
Lesh then brings in a clairvoyant named Tangina Barrons. She asks whether Diane will do anything she asks even if it is contrary to Diane’s beliefs as a human and a Christian. Tangina then explains that death is a transition to a different consciousness. Carol Anne, however, is still alive, and her life force gives off an illumination which distracts the dead from the light. She says that dead people who are not at rest and are unaware that they are dead live in a continual nightmare. Salvation exists inside the light, and Carol Anne must guide them to it. Tangina also explains the presence of an evil being who has imprisoned Carol Anne. It keeps her very close, lies to her, keeps her away from the light, and uses her to restrain the other souls.
Steve throws one end of a rope into the bedroom closet, and it comes out of the ceiling where Ryan is waiting. Steve then ties the rope around Diane’s waist. She walks into the closet to enter the spiritual realm while Steve and Ryan hold each end of the rope. Tangina tells the souls to go into the light. Diane retrieves Carol Anne and falls out of the ceiling downstairs. Tangina then declares that the house is clean.
The family packs many of its possessions and loads them into a moving truck but decides to spend one more night in the house. Robbie’s clown attacks him, and then the portal reopens in the closet. While the force behind the portal attempts to pull in Carol Anne and Robbie, spirits attempt to hold back Diane. Coffins emerge from the ground and open, revealing the bodies inside. Diane pulls Carol Anne and Robby out of their bedroom, and they escape the house. Steve realizes that when his company relocated the cemetery they only moved the headstones but left the coffins. While the family drives away, the entire house is pulled through the portal. The family checks into a Holiday Inn. After they enter their room Steve pushes the TV out onto the balcony.
Poltergeist is about spiritualism and paranormal activity. Carol Anne is able to communicate with the dead through the television, and for some unstated reason, she is the only one who can hear them. Presumably they speak to her mind. The fact that she was born in that house, which is built over a graveyard, is significant. After Carol Anne is abducted, her family uses the same means to communicate with her. Lesh’s assistants explain that an empty channel, such as on a radio or television, is free to receive transmissions from “inner space”(0:54.16). Tangina also communicates with the dead when she invites them to enter the light and receive salvation (1:30.19).
Problems begin when a vaporous spirit comes out of the television and flies into the wall above the parents’ bed, thereby inhabiting the house. The daughter then says, “They’re here” (0:24.27). E Buzz barks at the spot in the wall that the spirit entered, showing that he an awareness of the spirits, just as a cat is able to see Pete in Always, even though no one else can. E Buzz later barks at a spot in the ceiling before items fall out of the spiritual realm through that same spot.
At first, the poltergeist commits merely mischievous acts, such as bending utensils and moving chairs around. The fact that the poltergeist controls the tree, and possibly the storm as well, demonstrates the poltergeist’s power over the physical world. The family also experiences an earthquake that no one else experiences.
When Diane shows Steve her experiment with the sliding chair she tells Steve to be open-minded (0:32.27). She later attributes the disturbance to “another side of nature; you know, a side that you and I are not qualified to understand” (0:36.14). The best examples action in the physical realm, however, are when the poltergeist opens Carol Anne’s closet door and pulls her into its realm and when it later tries to capture both Carol Anne and Robbie.
A multi-plane cosmology is essential to this movie. Carol Anne’s closet is the portal into a spiritual plane, and the ceiling in the living room is the portal out of that plane. It is interesting, however, that although Carol Anne is on another plane in between the physical world and the world inside the light, in another sense it seems that she is still in the house because Diane feels Carol Anne walk through her soul and smells Carol Anne afterward (0:51.11). Tangina also tells Diane that Carol Anne is in the house (1:17.06).
The most important religious theme in this movie is the nature of the afterlife. Dr. Lesh explains the existence of a bright light holding the answers to all our questions. Those who do not enter the light, because they do not know they are dead or still hold onto their physical life, are stuck in between the physical world and salvation in the next (0:57.30). Lesh warns them that Carol Anne must avoid the light, because although it is a way out of the in-between realm, it is not a way back to the physical world (0:49.36).
Tangina says, “There is no death. It is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness” (1:18.22). It is also significant that Steve and Diane watch on the television a scene from A Guy Named Joe (0:14.07), in which Major Pete Sandich realizes that he has died, but he learns that death is only the beginning, not the end. Spielberg later remade A Guy Named Joe as Always, in which Pete learns that death is the beginning of a new existence (Brode, 111).
Tangina helps Steve and Diane to free Carol Anne from the evil being. After Diane walks through the portal, Tangina expresses a universalist theology when she invites all of the spirits to enter the light: “Cross over, children. All are welcome. All welcome. Go into the light. . . There is peace and serenity in the light” (1:30.19). Although no view of God is given in the movie, it is noteworthy that when the poltergeist tries a to kidnap both Carol Anne and Robbie, Diane is unable to save them until she prays, “God help me” (1:45.27). The movie seems to reject Christian theology when Tangina asks Diane, “Will you do anything I ask, even if it comes contrary to your beliefs as a human being and a Christian?” Diane says that she will (1:17.57).
Brode says that Poltergeist illustrates “what so many parents have warned their children about: ‘Don’t watch so much TV; it will rot your brain.’ That generalization is made frightfully specific here. . . Poltergeist functions as a cautionary fable: the nightmare scenario of what could happen to any one of us if we totally lose touch with the real world, allowing ourselves to be transfixed” (Brode, 105). Spielberg believes that television shows assume an unintelligent audience. In the final scene of Poltergeist he demonstrates a possible rejection of television when Steve pushes the TV out of their hotel room (1:50.26; Brode, 113).
Sanello, Frank, Spielberg: The Man, the Movies, the Mythology. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1996.